In baseball, context is everything. Most fans know this intuitively if they pay close attention to the game. Frank Robinson’s 586 career homeruns are considerably more impressive than, for example Rafael Palmeiro’s 569. Robinson’s lead of only 17 home runs over Palmeiro understates this. Robinson had his best years in the 1960s when the mound was higher, ballparks were bigger and pitching dominated. Palemeiro played in a, shall we say, more home run friendly environment. Similarly, single season save totals racked up by Eric Gagne (55 in 2003), Francisco Rodriguez (62 in 2008) and others in recent years clearly do not make them better relief pitchers than Goose Gossage whose single season high mark for saves was 33, Rollie Fingers who never saved more than 37 games in a season and others from the era when relievers often were called on to pitch two or more innings and to enter games with runners on base and pitch out of jams.
Context is also important for building a team and evaluating players. If a pitcher signs as a free agent with an AL team in a hitter’s park, after playing for years in a pitcher’s park in the NL, his ERA will go up and he will pitch fewer innings. This does not mean he has lost his skills simply that he is pitching in a different context. Some teams have trouble understanding this. It will be interesting, for example, how the Yankees handle pitchers, and hitters for that matter, now that they are playing in a better park for hitters.
Fifteen years ago, the entire context for Major League Baseball changed in a way that was probably more substantial than realized at the time. I am referring, of course, to the wild card system, which was introduced in 1994, but used for the first time in 1995. Debates about whether the wild card has helped the game are not new and essentially come down to whether one prefers the intense excitement of a short series, or the daily pressure of a close pennant race. However, the other ways in which the wild card has game has changed have still not yet been fully internalized by many.
Today roughly 26.7% of all teams make the post-season. This is a higher proportion than ever. For most of the 20th century only 12.5% of teams played in the post-season. During the first period of divisional play, 1969-1993, between 15-17% of teams appeared in the post-season. A league where more than one quarter of the teams makes the playoffs is very different than one where one out of six or eight teams do requiring teams to adjust their strategic thinking accordingly.
It should not be overlooked, moreover, that from 1962-1968 only ten percent of teams appeared in the post-season. Interestingly, the team that won the most games during this period was the San Francisco Giants who averaged almost 93 wins, but earned only one post-season berth in those seven years. The Giants of that period were a very strong team enjoying contributions for most of those years from two future Hall of Fame pitchers, two future Hall of Fame first basemen, a very strong supporting cast and a pretty fair centerfielder.
After winning 103 regular season games and losing a dramatic seven game World Series in 1962, from 1963-1968 those Mays-McCovey-Marichal Giants averaged 91 wins a year but did not play in a single post-season game. Averaging 91 wins over a six year period without playing a post-season series would be almost unimaginable during the wild card period. While winning roughly 640 games over a period of seven years is not at all unprecedented, it usually gets a team into the post-season more than once. For example, in nine of the 14 years since the wild card has been in place, at least one NL team with fewer than 91 wins made it to the post-season.
The Giants of that period were clearly not a great team; they were a very good team in a very competitive league. However, their failure to get to the post-season from 1963 to1968 was due largely to a structural context which was out of their control. This is relevant not just for Giants fans, but more broadly because not only can underestimating the impact of structure lead to retrospective misevaluations, but it can lead to misreading the success or failure of a current team and to strategic miscalculations.
It is now relatively common to see teams that make the playoffs, but get knocked out in the first round to think that they simply got a bad break, but are really a strong contender. More often than not, those teams do not advance the next year. Although those team made it to the playoffs, that in of itself is not such an impressive accomplishment anymore. Getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs is comparable to finishing in second place during the period of four divisions, or when there were eight teams in each league. It is also comparable to finishing second, or even third, during the 1962-1968 period when only one team in each ten team league got to play after the season ended. It is difficult for baseball people to understand this and act accordingly because the entire culture and narrative of baseball is built around a grueling season after which only a select few make the post-season. This narrative no longer applies, but many teams have not always adapted strategies and perceptions accordingly.
The upcoming July 31st trading deadline is one of those moments where properly understanding the context is absolutely essential to the short, medium and long term success of a franchise. The fundamental question facing teams at the trading deadline is whether they should be buyers or sellers. Being a buyer means taking the risk of giving up one or more top prospects on the off-chance that a player can make a sufficiently big difference in half a season, or occasionally a season and a half. The context is important here because deciding to give up top prospects to improve the team’s chances of sneaking into the playoffs only makes sense if making the playoffs are a truly meaningful accomplishment. Any team that is still one player away from making the playoffs is probably well more than one player away from winning it all. This was significantly less true 20-30 years ago and not true at all 41 or more years ago.